03 October 2011

The Founding Fathers and great wealth

Excerpts from an essay at Common Dreams:
In a letter to Joseph Milligan on April 6, 1816, Thomas Jefferson explicitly suggested that if individuals became so rich that their wealth could influence or challenge government, then their wealth should be decreased upon their death. He wrote, "If the overgrown wealth of an individual be deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance to all in equal degree..."

In this, he was making the same argument that the Framers of Pennsylvania tried to make when writing their constitution in 1776. As Kevin Phillips notes in his masterpiece book "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich," a Sixteenth Article to the Pennsylvania Bill of Rights (that was only "narrowly defeated") declared: "an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness of mankind, and, therefore, every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property."..

In "Wealth and Democracy," Kevin Phillips notes that: "George Washington, one of the richest Americans, was no more than a wealthy squire in British terms." Phillips says that it wasn't until the 1790' s - a generation after the War of Independence - that the first American accumulated a fortune that would be worth one million of today's dollars. The Founders and Framers were, at best, what today would be called the upper-middle-class in terms of lifestyle, assets, and disposable income.

Even Charles and Mary Beard granted that wealth and land-ownership were different things. Land, after all, didn't have the scarcity it does today, and thus didn't have the same value. Just about any free man could find land to settle, either where Native Americans had been decimated by disease or displaced by war...

When George Washington wrote his will and freed his slaves on his deathbed, he didn't have enough assets to buy the slaves his wife had inherited and free them as well. Like Jefferson, who died in bankruptcy, Washington was "rich" in land but poor in cash...

Their writings show that they truly believed they were doing sacred work, something greater than themselves, their personal interests, or even the narrow interests of their wealthy constituents back in their home states... And thus the willingness to set aside economic interest to produce a document - admittedly imperfect - that would establish an enduring beacon of liberty for the world.


  1. That's just ridiculous. Mount Vernon consisted of 8000 acres of prime bottom land. Washington was worth more than half a billion in today's dollars. You have to get up to James Buchanan before you have a president worth less than a million - Lincoln was a successful railroad lawyer. http://247wallst.com/2010/05/17/the-net-worth-of-the-american-presidents-washington-to-obama/2/

    The idea that land was cheap and freely available is bunk. All the land in the original colonies was owned by someone - people were moving to Ohio (Indian country) to find land at significant risk to themselves - http://www.cabellcounty.org/History/history.htm

  2. Related article by author David Brin (and perhaps of interest):


  3. On cue come the apologists...

  4. @Bub, "All the land in the original colonies was owned by someone"? Yes,the Mohawk, Pequot, Oneida, Iroquois, etc. One needn't go to Ohio to find "Indian country".

  5. The white people stole that land fair and square - don't think the Pequods would have behaved differently if they'd had gun powder. The point was that the land was taken which prevented other people from settling on it.

  6. The interesting thing I'd like to point to was that this "sixteenth article" WAS defeated, which meant enough people DISAGREED with it to axe it. The founding fathers probably never foresaw how American politics would be shaped with personal wealth, but they understood enough about economics to leave a capitalistic society that rewards innovation and hard work in place.

    I'm trying to understand the point of this essay. Is the author supporting the idea that the GOVERNMENT should TAKE a dead person's wealth and redistribute it, regardless of the living heirs? Oh wait... the government ALREADY DOES. It's called the DEATH tax.


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